After leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a 111-107 victory over the Denver Nuggets, Kobe Bryant confirmed what the basketball world already knew. “I feel like myself,” he told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. And in the most decisive way yet in a final season wrought with far more lows than highs, the future Hall of Famer looked like it, too.
Bryant scored 31 points on 10-of-22 from the field and 9-of-11 from the free throw line Tuesday night. He doled out five assists and delivered in crunch time like the Mamba of old, too. But the most impressive aspect of Bryant’s performance against Denver isn’t captured in the highlight video, above nor what you’d expect from a 37-year-old who recently had three major surgeries.
The Nuggets’ Will Barton, a burgeoning Sixth Man of the Year candidate, torched the Lakers for 23 points off the bench in the first half. How did Byron Scott react? By asking Bryant to check a scorching hot, über-athletic wing player who’s 13 years his junior. “I got him,” the nine-time First Team All-Defense honoree told his coach.
Barton scored two points on just 1-of-5 shooting after halftime. Bryant was his primary defender on each of those attempts, making up for the athletic disparity between he and Barton with effort and craft.
In the Lakers’ post-game locker room, Bryant was asked what he cherished more: vintage shot-making or lockdown defense. “Both. Because it’s a great test for me tonight to be able to see if I could still play both ends of the floor,” he explained to ESPN. “I felt like I could do one. I didn’t know if I could do both. It felt good to be able to do that.”
A realist knows just how tenuous the five-time champion’s grasp on both sides of the ball has been this season. Even an efficient scoring outburst, basically, would have been more than enough to placate millions of wary Bryant fans across the globe. But he did so much more than that on Tuesday, recalling the two-way force of the early and mid-2ooos that’s been merely a memory for almost a decade.
Here’s hoping we see this version of Bryant at least one more time before his storied career comes to a close.